From Academic Kids

Les Misérables is an 1862 novel by the famous French novelist Victor Hugo, set in the Parisian underworld. Many people know of it through the musical of the same name.




Les Misérables contains multitudes of plots, but the thread that binds them together is the story of the ex-convict Jean Valjean, who becomes a force for good in the world, but cannot escape his past.

Within the borders of this Romantic plot, the author Victor Hugo filled many pages with his thoughts on religion, politics, and society. It has been considered inspirational to many who felt oppressed since then.

Structurally, the novel is divided into five volumes:

  1. Fantine
  2. Cosette
  3. Marius
  4. The Idyll of the Rue Plumet and the Epic of the Rue Saint Denis
  5. Jean Valjean

Each volume consists of eight or more "books" divided into some number of chapters.


Jean Valjean is sentenced to hard labor in the galleys in Toulon for five years for breaking into a bakery and stealing a loaf of bread in order to feed his starving sister and her seven children. He ultimately serves nineteen years, having received additional time for four escape attempts.

After his release, in October 1815, Jean Valjean discovers that his ex-convict's passport makes him an outsider; he is able to find neither decent work nor accommodation. He slowly becomes more and more inhuman, losing his kindness and goodwill. In Digne, he is offered a meal and a room for the night by the bishop, a humble and compassionate man who donates almost all of his large salary to the poor. The bishop's only luxuries are a set of silverware, which Jean Valjean steals during the night. The next morning, he is caught by the policed, yet the bishop gives him two silver candlesticks, telling the policemen that the silver was a gift, not a theft. The bishop (note that he has no name) tells Jean 'I have bought your soul for God' and asks Jean to become an honest man henceforth. Jean Valjean starts anew in a town in Montreuil-sur-Mer, under the name of M. Madeleine. He invests in the local industry, setting up a factory for black glass trinkets, and his innovations bring wealth to the region and to himself; in recognition of his contributions to the region, he is appointed mayor. The town's police inspector Javert, who was once stationed at the prison that held Jean Valjean, suspects the mayor's identity, but is unable to gather proof that will stand against a man of M. Madeleine's reputation. Javert is described as a man who follows the written law almost to the letter, without emotion or pleasure.

Javert is the antagonist of the book. He grew up in a prison, and knows nothing but the law. Indeed, he sees all issues in terms of black and white. It is this that leads him to pursue Jean Valjean, or "24601" (Jean Valjean's prisoner identification number) forever.

Among those who come to work in M. Madeleine's factory is a young woman named Fantine, who returns to her home town from a sojourn in Paris. While in Paris, Fantine was seduced and then abandoned by a university student, with whom she bore a daughter, Cosette. To keep her illegitimate child a secret, Fantine has left her in the care of a couple who run an inn in Montfermeil. This couple, the Thénardiers, continually invent new expenses and excuses for requesting money, which they keep themselves while they feed and clothe Cosette with their own daughters' leftovers and make her do all the housework.

Fantine's secret is discovered, and she is fired from the factory. Unable to pay off her debts and keep up with the Thénardiers' demands, she slides into desperate poverty, and eventually resorts to prostitution. One day, Inspector Javert finds her attacking a respectable citizen, and arrests her. Jean Valjean, having discovered that the citizen provoked the incident, pulls rank on Javert to get the charges dropped; and, on learning of Fantine's plight, promises her that he will pay her debts and see to her future and that of Cosette. Fantine, weakened by privation, enters what the doctor says will be a final illness.

For Javert, the mayor's intervention on behalf of a streetwalker is the final straw. He denounces M. Madeleine to the Prefect of Police; in reply, he is told that M. Madeleine can not be Jean Valjean, as Jean Valjean has recently been recaptured. The real Jean Valjean is now faced with a dilemma. He first doesn't really see the reasons for denouncing himself, but after discovering, that he can't be happy with this decision, he starts to think. It is his conscience, that finally makes him at least go to Arras, where the trial is to be hald, but he is not entirely sure himself, what he wants to do there and keeps telling himself, that he can decide later. There are many obstacles on his way to Arras and even though Valjean's somewhat happy about them, he always finds a way to solve them. Finally, when sitting in the court room and seeing the trial, he makes his decision and denounces himself. He has to prove his claim though, nobody believes him. The court, shocked by his announcement allows Jean Valjean to leave, without being arrested. Valjean returns to the bedside of the dying Fantine. In order to comfort Fantine, Valjean tells her Cosette is with him, but that Fantine is too weak to see her. However, Javert catches up to him and orders his arrest. Valjean requests that he may fetch Cosette from the Thénardiers before Javert arrests him. Javert refuses this request, and from this exchange of words, Fantine realizes that Cosette really is not there at all. She dies of shock from learning that her trusted mayor is actually a convict. Valjean calmly but harshly tells Javert, "You have killed this woman." Valjean whispers a silent promise to her, untold by the author (presumably saying he will protect Cosette). Ignoring Valjean's accusation of murder, Javert arrests him. He escapes the same day from Montreuil's prison, manages to reach Paris and hide his fortune of 630000 francs in a wood near Montfermeil, but is recaptured four days later while getting into a fiacre to Montfermeil. In consequence he is first sentenced to death, later his sentence is changed to hard labour for life.

Jean Valjean escapes from the galleys, retrieves M. Madeleine's fortune, and rescues Cosette from the Thenardiers. He travels with her to Paris, where they hide in the Gorbeau tenement, before coming to a convent, after having had to escape from Javert, who had managed to find Valjean's track. When Cosette is forteen, they leave the convent and come to reside in an isolated house in the Rue Plumet. Having learned from the close run-in with Inspector Javert, who is now stationed in Paris, Jean Valjean also rents a number of other properties around the city, so as to always have a safe place nearby. Two more years pass; Cosette grows up, and becomes beautiful.

On a visit to the Luxembourg Garden with her "father", Cosette attracts the notice of Marius Pontmercy, an impoverished law student. Over the course of subsequent visits the two fall in love, albeit at a distance, as Marius initially lacks the courage for a direct approach and starts following the two. Even though thinking, he wouldn't be noticed, he draws Valjean's attention on him. Jean Valjean, wary of attracting anybody's attention and selfishly afraid of losing Cosette, stops taking her to the Luxembourg.

In january 1832, Jean Valjean, who has been active in doing good works among the poor, encounters the Thenardiers, who have come to live in Paris, in the Gorbeau tenement, since the failure of their inn, and now live off charitable handouts supplemented by various criminal activities. Jean Valjean pretends not to recognise them, and, seeing that they are genuinely poor, promises to bring them money. M. Thenardier has also recognised Jean Valjean, and arranges with his criminal associates to ambush Jean Valjean on his return in the hope of extorting still more money from him. Jean Valjean calmly bluffs his way through the situation, and has almost maneuvred himself into a position from which he can escape when the police arrive, having been tipped off by Marius, who lives in the same tenement and overheard Thenardier plotting the ambush. Seeing Inspector Javert at the head of the police, Jean Valjean makes good his escape before more recognition occurs.

Thenardier's eldest daughter, Eponine, has fallen for Marius, although she soon realises that he is interested only in Cosette. She agrees to try and discover Cosette's address for him, and succeeds in locating the house in the Rue Plumet. Marius approaches Cosette one evening while she is walking in the garden of the house. Cosette and Marius declare their love for one another, and continue to meet in the garden each evening, without Jean Valjean knowing.

Jean Valjean sees Thenardier prowling the neighbourhood, and, taking this into consideration with the increasing unrest in city, begins to consider moving away. On the 3rd of June, 1832, Jean Valjean tells Cosette to begin preparing to leave Paris, and when Marius comes for his evening visit, Cosette breaks the news to him that they are to be parted. Marius, who has no money with which to travel after Cosette and her father, comes to a decision, and tells Cosette not to expect him on the following evening, as he will be calling on somebody who might help.

Eponine, who has once already foiled her father's designs on the Rue Plumet for Marius' sake, slips Jean Valjean an anonymous message warning him to move away before he tries again. This, on top of the various signs he has noticed that someone has been surreptitiously entering the garden, prompts Jean Valjean to move up the planned date of departure. He informs Cosette that they will be spending their last few days in Paris at his house in the Rue de l'Homme Arme. Cosette gives Eponine a message for Marius, but Eponine, jealous, decides not to pass it on.

Marius goes to his closest living relative, his grandfather, M. Gillenormand, with whom he has had no contact since they quarrelled four years ago. M. Gillenormand raised Marius after his mother died giving birth to him, allowing his father (of whom M. Gillenormand had always disapproved because he was a bonapartist and Gillenorman a royalist) no contact with the family. After his father's death, Marius discovered the truth about his father (of whom he had always thought, that he had neglected him) and afterwards changed his political oppinions and started calling himself "baron", a title given to his father by Napoleon. It was over M. Gillenormand's treatment of Marius' father and their different political oppinions that they quarrelled. M. Gillenormand is delighted by the chance to reconcile with his beloved grandson, but, old ladies' man that he is, is unable to comprehend the sincerity of Marius' feelings for Cosette; he makes light of the situation, and Marius angrily departs, declaring his intention never to return.

In 1832, there are rumblings of disaffection among the lower classes, who feel that their lot is not much improved by the recent July Revolution. Insurrection is in the air. Among those involved are a student group called the ABC Society (in french, ABC is pronounced nearly as abaissé, humiliated), led by a man named Enjolras, dedicated to the ideals of human advancement and the abolition of the current monarchy; Marius has friends among the members of the Society; he even nearly joined it, but after meeting Cosette, he's got other things in his mind than politics. The funeral on the 5th of June, 1832, of General Lamarque, who had been much loved by the people, is the trigger for armed insurrection. Enjolras and the ABC Society head a group of fifty insurrectionists, which also includes a street child called Little Gavroche, the neglected son of the Thenardiers, who considers it a fine game; Eponine, who had been hoping to find Marius; and an undercover Javert.

Enjolras and his group decide to site their barricade near the intersection of the Rue de la Chanvrerie and the Rue Saint Denis - and, not entirely coincidentally, near a tavern with which the students have a long acquaintance. They occupy the tavern, and set to work building the barricade. Javert is unmasked by Gavroche, and imprisoned in the tavern.

Marius goes to see Cosette again, and finds the house deserted. Having thus lost his grandfather and the woman he loves in the space of twenty-four hours, Marius is plunged into despair. While he is thus despairing, Eponine (who knew he would be here at this time) arrives with a message inviting him to join Enjolras and his friends. Marius, feeling that without Cosette he has nothing left to live for, goes to join Enjolras' group at the barricade.

Soldiers arrive and attack the barricade. The barricade is penetrated, but Marius, careless of his own life, forces the attackers to fall back by threatening to blow up the revolutionaries' ammunition store. Eponine, who took a bullet for Marius during the attack, gives Marius the message from Cosette and dies. Marius concludes that, since his grandfather was no help, their love is still doomed. He writes Cosette a message of farewell and, after the soldiers leave off for the night, sends Gavroche to deliver it, hoping thereby to get Gavroche away and save him from the fighting.

At about the same time, Jean Valjean finds the traces of Cosette's letter to Marius on a blotter. Realising that Cosette is in love, he nearly drops into despair. Knowing nothing better than going outside, he meets Gavroche, coming with Marius' note. Gavroche, eager to be back at the barricade, lets Jean Valjean take the note instead of insisting on delivering it to Cosette in person. Jean Valjean reads the note himself, and, upon discovering, that Marius, who'd threatened to take Cosette away from him, will be dead the next morning, he is at first very happy about it. But again, as in the Champmathieu affair, he begins to think. Again his conscience won't let him alone and he reminds himself of the fact, that he swore to Fantine to make Cosette happy. He ends up, going to the barricades, without really knowing, what he wants to do there.

Dawn approaches, and soldiers prepare a renewed attack on the barricade. It has become clear that the Parisian masses are not going to rise up and join the revolution; the revolutionaries resolve to fight on regardless, as an example. The soldiers resume their attack, but the barricade holds. Gavroche sneaks out of the barricade to loot the ammunition-pouches of the fallen soldiers, and is killed. Jean Valjean, thanks to his infaillible aim with a rifle, makes himself quite usefull at the barricade, without killing anybody though. Around noon, the tide begins to turn in favour of the attackers, and the revolutionaries prepare for the final assault. Enjolras decides that the time has come to execute the police spy, as they are now beyond the point where one bullet might make a difference; Jean Valjean volunteers for the job, and, taking Javert to the alley behind the tavern,... Javert has a powerful quote, referring to his nature - "How like you to kill with a knife." However, Jean lets him go, much to Javert's astonishment, and even tells him his adress. During the final onslaught, all the revolutionaries are killed, except for Marius, who is severely wounded, and Jean Valjean, who escapes with the unconscious Marius through the sewers. Enjolras and Grantaire, a drunkard, are the last to survive and are shot by a firing squad.

Jean Valjean successfully navigates the hazards of the sewer to reach a distant exit, where he encounters first Thenardier (who, failing to recognise either Jean Valjean or his burden in the poor light, takes him for a fellow criminal trying to dispose of a victim) and then a policeman who was tailing Thenardier: it is Inspector Javert, who promptly arrests him. Jean Valjean submits to Javert's authority, but persuades him first to take Marius home to his grandfather and then to let Jean Valjean say a last goodbye to Cosette. Javert stops outside Jean Valjean's house while he says goodbye, and when Jean Valjean emerges, Javert is gone.

Javert is disturbed: Jean Valjean's noble behaviour challenges Javert's convictions about the degradation of all who transgress against the law, and his own instinctive reaction to it mocks his convictions about the correct attitude toward transgressors. Unable to reconcile his duty as an officer of the Law - always, until now, his highest duty in his own eyes - with his debt of honour to the man who saved his life at the barricade, he drowns himself in the Seine.

Marius gradually recovers from his injuries, and is reconciled with his grandfather and reunited with Cosette. Cosette and Marius are married on the 16th of February, 1833. Jean Valjean leaves the celebrations early, pleading illness, and spends the night solitarily considering his future. Feeling unworthy of Cosette's love, and fearing for her happiness should his past catch up with him, Jean Valjean concludes that he should not intrude himself upon Cosette and Marius' life together. This will be the last of the protagonist's tortured inner monologues, in which he decides to definitely give up the last thing, that valued in his life: Cosette. It was shown before, that after finding out that he's going to loose Cosette to Marius, Valjean was willing to loose his life at the barricades or his freedom to Javert. On the day following the wedding, he tells Marius about his past and his resons for the revelation. Marius is astonished and horrified - Valjean says nothing in his own favour, save only to assure Marius that his fortune, now Cosette's, was legally come by, and even then implying that it was Cosette's money all along - and accepts Valjean's decision. though he can't entirely believe Valjean: he doesn't use the money, because Valjean only told him it was legally earned, but not how; he absents himself on every single of Valjean's visits and even starts to make the visits as uncomfortable as possible to Valjean, clearly showing him: I do not want you here! Cosette is hurt and confused by Jean Valjean's decision to distance himself, and when she calls him "Father," Valjean tells her to call him "Monsieur Jean," and he calls her "madame." However, neither he nor Marius will explain, as neither is prepared to burden her with the knowledge of her "father"'s past. Gradually, Cosette becomes accustomed to the new situation. Jean Valjean, faced with Marius' continuing disapproval, visits less regularly and finally ceases to visit at all. He goes into a decline, never leaving his lodgings and ceasing to eat.

Meanwhile, Thenardier, having recognised Jean Valjean in a passing wedding cavalcade in February, has been doing some research. He comes to see Marius, hoping to extort money out of him by revealing his father-in-law's past. He succeeds only in removing Marius' suspicions of Valjean: by revealing Valjean's career as M. Madeleine, Valjean's salvation of Javert at the barricade, and - when he thinks he is playing his trump card, the fact, that he'd seen Valjean with a man, who, as Thenardier thinks, was murdered by Valjean - that it was Valjean who saved Marius by carrying him through the sewers. As soon as Thenardier is out of the house, Marius takes Cosette and makes haste to Jean Valjean's lodging to bring him home. But they are almost too late; there is time only for a brief joyful reunion, and then Jean Valjean dies.

Other threads

At a number of points in the novel, Hugo pauses to devote a book to detailed consideration of a particular subject that has appeared in the story; in this way are included essays on subjects as diverse as the history and purpose of religious communities, slang, the roots of armed insurrection, and the history and geography of the sewers of Paris.

Other essays, after taking up most of a book, conclude with a chapter tying them into the plot: thus a play-by-play account of the Battle of Waterloo ends in an encounter between Colonel Pontmercy, Marius Pontmercy's father, and "Sergeant" Thenardier; an essay on the Parisian street child as an idea ends by introducing the specific street child called Little Gavroche; and an essay on the significance and consequences of the July Revolution ends with a chapter showing how Enjolras and his friends are tied in with those consequences.

Similarly, at points in the novel Hugo devotes a book to detailed consideration to a particular character or group of characters who otherwise appear only briefly in the narrative: these include M. Myriel, the bishop of Digne; the nuns of the convent in the Rue Petit-Picpus, in whose school Cosette is educated; Marius' grandfather, M. Gillenormand; the group of revolution-minded students led by Enjolras; the Parisian criminal organisation known as "Patron-Minette".

One character rates an entire volume. The third volume is devoted to the life story of Marius; Jean Valjean and Cosette appear only in the sixth book, which tells the encounters in the Luxembourg Garden from Marius' point of view, and the climactic eighth, which recounts the day in which Jean Valjean's philanthropy brings him once more in contact with the Thenardiers.

Other characters whose lives are woven into the narrative include Pére Fauchelevant, whose life Jean Valjean saves in Montreuil-sur-Mer and who returns the favour in Paris; the various inhabitants of the Gorbeau tenement, where Jean Valjean and Cosette stay when they first come to the city; M. Mabeuf, a retired and impoverished horticulturalist, who befriends Marius' father and then Marius; Little Gavroche, whose role is considerably larger than the above synopsis suggests; and two small children, in fact Gavroche's brothers, neglected by their parents just as Gavroche was, who Little Gavroche takes under his wing after their previous guardian is arrested in a police raid.



Les Misérables is, among its many other themes, a discussion and comparison of grace and legalism. This is seen most starkly in the juxtaposition of the two protagonists, Jean Valjean and Javert.

On his release from prison near the start of the book, all Jean Valjean knows about is the judgement of the law. He committed a crime, he suffered the punishment - although he feels that this is somehow unjust. In a way, his view at this point is similar to that of Javert, with the exception that Javert does think the punishment just. Nevertheless, both operate on a basis of deeds and rewards, or legalism: in the musical adaptation of the work, this is expressed very well in the solo "Stars", with the lines:

And so it has been, and so it is written
On the doorway to paradise
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price

It is from the starting-point of legalism that the two worldviews start to separate. Valjean's first encounter with grace occurs after he has found himself rejected because of his status as an ex-convict, and is forced to take refuge with a bishop for the night (see #synopsis). He runs off with the bishop's silver, is caught and returned, but the bishop not only says that the silver was a gift, but famously also gives him the two silver candlesticks from his table. This treatment that does not correspond to what Valjean "deserves" is a powerful image of grace.

Throughout the work, right up until the end, Valjean is haunted by his past, most notably in the form of Javert. It is therefore fitting that the greatest triumph of grace in the book is between Valjean and Javert. After Javert is busted going undercover with the revolutionaries, Jean Valjean volunteers to execute him. However, instead of taking vengeance as Javert expects, he sets the policeman free. This can be seen as the ultimate triumph of grace in Valjean's life, however the author also makes the point that legalism can become entrenched: Javert is unable to reconcile his black-and-white view with the apparent high morals of this ex-criminal and with the grace extended to him, and commits suicide.

Grace is seen as a positive moral force in Valjean's life. Whereas prison has hardened him to the point of stealing from a poor and charitable bishop, grace frees him to himself be charitable to others - as in the case of Fantine, accused of prostitution, and of the falsely accused "Jean Valjean" (who is in fact an innocent man - (see the #synopsis). It also teaches him to react differently to his mistakes: having ducked responsibility when Fantine is sacked by his foreman, he proceeds to try to right the wrong. Despite his selfishness in guarding Cosette and keeping her from Marius, when he reads Marius's last note to her he heads over to the barricades to save Marius. The reforming nature of grace as opposed to the embittering nature of legalism is a major theme in Les Misérables.


English translations

At least four English translations of the novel exist, by:

  • Charles E. Wilbour (first published in 1862, only months after the French edition of the novel was released)
  • Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee (first published ?, based on Wilbour)
  • Norman Denny (first published 1976)
  • Denny refers to "three earlier renderings of Hugo's novel" in the introduction to his translation, indicating the existing of a fourth version.


The story has been filmed numerous times:

Different versions of Les Misérables in the IMDb (;tt=on;mx=20)

In 1937, Orson Welles wrote, produced and directed a seven-part series for radio. Welles himself narrated the story and played the part of Valjean. The show featured Ray Collins, Alice Frost, Martin Gabel, Bill Johnstone, Agnes Moorehead and Everett Sloane, many of whom would perform for The Mercury Theatre on the Air.

In 1980, a musical (see Les Misérables (musical)) opened in Paris, written by the composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and the librettist Alain Boublil, which has gone on to become one of the most successful musicals in history.

In 2001, BBC Radio 4 produced a 25-part radio dramatisation, with a cast of 27 featuring Joss Ackland narrating, Roger Allam as Valjean, and David Schofield as Javert. (Allam, ironically, originated the role of Javert in the English language version of the Boublil/Schönberg musical.)

In May 2001, Francois Ceresa published Cosette, or the Time of Illusions, a sequel to Les Misérables. Victor Hugo's descendants attempted to have the book banned, condemning it as a money-seeking enterprise and an attack on Hugo's work (more subjective offences aside, it is undeniable that Ceresa retconned a key scene in Hugo's novel to avoid the death of a character he wanted to use in his novel). Victor Hugo's heirs and the Société des gens de lettres lost the first trial [1] ( but won in appeal [2] (

In 2004, a fighting game based on the novel called ArmJoe (a pun on the Japanese title, ああ無情 Aa Mujou) was released as freeware. [3] (

External links


de:Die Elenden fr:Les Misérables he:עלובי החיים ja:レ・ミゼラブル pl:Nędznicy sv:Les Misérables sv:Samhällets olycksbarn (bok) zh:悲惨世界


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